First World War soldier diaries to be made available online

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The National Archives is to digitise more than a million pages of unit diaries written during the First World War.

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In the largest single digitisation project undertaken by the archives, 1.5m pages relating to France and Flanders will feature in a new First World War online portal.

The portal, titled First World War 100, will open up wartime records previously available only at the National Archives site at Kew in London.

In addition to the unit war diaries, which chronicle the day-by-day operations of regiments, the portal will include service records of the Household Cavalry, and the minutes and papers of the Central Military Service Tribunal.

Other highlights include medal cards and prisoner of war interviews, as well as blogs, podcasts and video content.

Staff hope that the portal, which is now live but will not feature war diaries and other material until 2014, will attract a new audience for archives during the centenary.

Over five years the portal will explore key aspects of the war through themes including diplomacy, technology, bravery and courage, the home front, and medicine and health.

The National Archives hopes to draw attention to lesser-known wartime records, and help people to discover the stories behind the war.

William Spencer, principal military records specialist at The National Archives, said: “The First World War 100 portal brings together all our existing online record collections, advice and guidance on searching for WW1 ancestors, and the latest news about our programme of events, digitisation launches and other activities throughout the centenary period.

“From the popular My Tommy’s War blog series to details of new digitised releases and lesser-known records series, I’m sure both first-time users and experienced researchers will find this new portal useful and interesting.”

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Richard Grayson, a professor of 20th-century history at Goldsmiths, University of London, told historyextra: “War diaries are really important records, because they are often the only way for a member of the public to find anything in-depth about the nature of their relative’s service.

“War diaries allow people to find out where exactly their relative’s unit went, and even what the weather was like.

“The regrettable thing, however, is that you will lose that personal touch online. You can smell the pipe tobacco when using original documents, and that will be lost online.

“But it is important that these documents be digitised. It will greatly increase the amount of work that can be done by local projects, because people won’t have to trek to the archives in London.

“War diaries give something qualitative, that describe what was happening to individuals. They are unlike anything else in terms of their coverage and scope.

“I think that is why they are such an important source.”

Mark Connelly, a professor of modern British history at the University of Kent, told historyextra: “It’s absolutely wonderful that these documents are being digitised. They will allow people to map something of the character of units and the type of officers they had in charge.

“They will also be full of domestic detail that you don’t associate with life at war – for example, that an officer had to have tooth removed, or a soldier caught the flu. The diaries will help show that not all casualties are by enemy action. You had accidents and illnesses similar to domestic ones.

“The diaries will also increase people’s understanding of how relatively little time men spent in the trenches. Men had very varied lives, but within a monotonous spectrum – they would be on the front line for a few days, but then they would be doing backbreaking but monotonous work such as filling sandbags.

“And even with the most detailed diarists, you can see how sparse diaries are when there has been extremely heavy action, when it’s all hands on deck. It gives you an insight into the pace of activity.

“But one downside is that, as an old-fashioned historian who still finds it mesmerising to have original documents in his hand, you lose something with digitisations. I understand it entirely, but the sentimental side of me finds it a little bit sad.”

To find out more about the First World War 100 portal, click here.

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Images © The National Archives